«The City as a Commons» conference in Bologna. Or: phenomenological flânerie as urban commoning pedagogy? (part one)

Originally published on the Schumacher College Blog on January 15, 2016.


On November 6 and 7, I – along with the ubiquitous Jonathan Dawson – attended in Bologna, Italy, the 1st IASC Thematic Conference on the Urban Commons, titled «The City as Commons».

The City as a Commons

So, this is obviously a report on the provocative discussions that took place during that event. At the same time, however, this account is as much the product of my own listening to those discussions, as it is of listening to Bologna itself – in a glorious two-day of early November sunshine – through meditative ambulations and the joys of getting lost in the bowels of its historic centre: those experiences, as well, have helped me get a better sense of how commoning may feel, as you criss-cross and trace the city with your body.

Rather than undertake a linear recollection of all the panels I attended, in their chronological succession, I would like instead to begin by the one question that guided my inquiry, and my attempt at navigating the conference schedule in those two days. The question – which I will expand upon shortly – can be summarised as follows: is commoning a kind of match-making between «resources» and «governance models» for those resources, i.e. a taxonomy or classification of human institution-building practices, or does it refer to something less abstract and more corporeal? By which I mean a practice that interrogates the very relationship of material bodies to place, evoking perhaps a pace and attitude whilst treading in space that remains attentive to the unexpected, the abrupt, the unforeseen, the emergent and – as was once mentioned during the conference itself – the «hallucinatory»?

The commons: a closed set or a heuristic device?

Tine de Moor discussing «How to Be a Critical Scholar of the Commons» in Bologna
Tine de Moor discussing «How to Be a Critical Scholar of the Commons» in Bologna

This question first came to me as I listened to the opening keynote speech by Tine de Moor, the president of the International Association for the Study of the Commons, which I – too – have joined prior to enrolling for the conference. Tine’s approach to the study of the commons is that of a historian and her best known work, «The Dilemma of the Commoners», is precisely an attempt to describe and reclaim from the dust of history the wealth of institutional experiments in collective action that were already being undertaken in Europe, since at least the late Middle Ages. In her opening speech, titled «How to Be a Critical Scholar of the Commons?», she presented a fascinating relationship, whereby the rise of commons-centred institutional experimentation could be regarded as an almost spontaneous response to historical contingencies, when the shortcomings and market failures of commercialised relations – shaped after the paradigm of the exchange (as opposed to the gift) – could be felt most harshly. In this sense, she describes three waves of commoning experimentation – respectively in the twelfth and thirteenth century, in the late 1800s and in the last decade – precisely as instances of this phenomenon. Although, of course, the fortunes and challenges met by these different phases of experimentation in the collective use and reproduction of community resources clearly differed, based on the specific historical conditions to which they responded and with which they had to reckon.
In sum, Tine’s speech afforded a fascinating glimpse into the imaginative possibilities that can be disclosed through a patient effort of scavenging for alternative experiences in human community and dwelling, which have oftentimes been lost in the progress narrative of capitalist modernity. At the same time, I found that her view of what a critical attitude to the study of the commons should entail seemed to be confined almost exclusively to an analytical work of taxonomy. In her words, the task of the commons scholar is to provide insight into what works and what doesn’t, in relation to managing a particular kind of shared resource, so as to ensure – and I marked her words here – that the «right resource [be] linked to the right governance model».
While I see the merit in the sort of work she advocates, I also felt a risk that giving too much weight to scholarly taxonomies risks doing for the commons what Linnaeus did to the study of plants. Namely, to superimpose an external classification that simplifies a phenomenon from the position of an external observer (what I think Henri Bortoft would call downstream thinking), but without offering much of an orientation for the purpose of navigating – from within – the «live» transformations of an evolving social form (which, to stay with the metaphor of plants, is much closer to what I think Goethe would do). In other words, taxonomies can backfire when they reduce the world to a closed set of possibilities, as they then risk leading to the (entirely avoidable) problem of having to fit the world into those categories, as opposed to the categories themselves functioning more lightly as heuristic devices to aid and bolster continuous experimentation. Practically, this boils down to a different way of formulating the task of the commons scholar: less figuring out whether «commons institutions work or not in this type of case?» (as though «commons institutions» were a closed set of solutions, to be matched with another closed set of problems) and more «what elements from past experience can I/we rely upon, to gauge whether something may work or not, so as to find a footing in the unique set of practical difficulties I am/we are currently facing?». Call this laborious, but the difference – as was to become clearer to me as the conference progressed – is a very significant one.

Commoning as emergent social practice … but also as design choice.

As these questions echoed in my mind, I was to gather snippets from other presenters’ contributions that somehow seemed to speak to my particular unease. For instance, in a subsequent panel, Anna Serravalli – a design lecturer from Malmö University in Sweden, and author of a fascinating Ph.D. on the relationship between commons and design practice – voiced a skeptical view towards talk of «toolkits». This – she suggested – risks introducing what she called the «ossification dilemma», whereby attention can become restricted to a search for the institutional model to «apply» to a particular context. She contrasts this view of commoning, as the deployment of a «toolkit», to one of commoning as a situated practice, fed primarily through live engagement with the vagaries of process in the participatory co-design of always-provisional solutions that be suited to the unique set of circumstances that define a collective predicament, at a particular point in time.
Her talk was followed by an illuminating paper by Johannes Euler, a Ph.D. scholar from Germany, titled «The Social Practice of Commoning as Core Determinant for the Commons». The gist of his argument was the following: in «taxonomic» or classificatory (read downstream) approaches to the commons, the appropriateness of a particular governance model is usually predicated on the particular «nature» of the resources to be managed in that way. Indeed, resources tend to be classified along the lines of subtractability of use (i.e. whether one person’s use rules out another person’s simultaneous use of the same resource – think of an apple as opposed to a road) and excludability (i.e. whether the resource is easy to fence – again compare a toilet to a firework display). This theoretical construction is essential in moving on to step two of the classificatory approach to the commons: if resources present objectively different constraints in terms of their differing propensity towards subtractability of use and excludability, then we can determine which governance model ought to be appropriate for them, based precisely on the relevant features of the resource itself.
In an accessible and elegant manner, Johannes effectively deconstructed this approach, by taking down its founding premise: that it is indeed possible to classify resources based on what features they «objectively» possess. He objected, instead, that what subtractability and excludability actually refer to are social practices, so that the same «thing» may lend itself to additive/generative uses as well as subtractive uses. Along the same line of argument, excludability is actually a signpost for concerted social practices of inclusion and exclusion. In this sense, therefore, it’s problematic to predicate, on the supposed «nature» of a particular good, features that actually descend from socially originated – and therefore variable – conventions of use (he went even further, to argue that one ought also to consider that whether a material entity is treated as a «good» is again dependent on a social evaluation, so he suggested to use the more neutral notion of «matter»). On this view, then, the «commons» are less of a thing and more of a process of «commoning», which he defined as the «self-organised (re)prod-usage [because use and re-production cannot always be easily told apart in practice] by peers, who engage in it with the aim to satisfy their needs». In practical terms, this means that anything can actually function as a commons, so long as the social practices and attitudes to relate to it in this way find room to emerge and to gradually develop.

Ezio Manzini on the relationship between «Commons and Collaborative Services» in Bologna
Ezio Manzini on the relationship between «Commons and Collaborative Services» in Bologna

At the same time, Ezio Manzini’s keynote (Ezio, if this is the first time you hear his name, is the author of a now classic text on collaborative design: «Design, When Everybody Designs»), which bore the title «Commons and Collaborative Services», stressed how commoning – and the collaborative service delivery it makes possible – presupposes the interplay of emergent self-organisation and design. The problem, he says, is that when one mentions design, it is frequent that people immediately take as a reference the practice of designing solid objects. Instead, Manzini argued that the commons are better understood as fluid forms, like eddies and whirlpools in water. The design of fluid forms involves working on the environing conditions that (indirectly) make a particular occurrence more likely to manifest, rather than on producing that outcome directly. Hence, commoning entails both an openness to the uniqueness of the circumstances in which a given intervention is to take place, and an accompanying sense of what design choices are possible in the first place (a sense that can only arise from what other/previous experiences one may be acquainted with, and can therefore be oriented by). In this sense, the space for conscious design of the commons that Ezio Manzini foregrounded in his speech is one that is, of course, aided by some knowledge of «models» or «patterns» of collective action, and of their respective potentials and limitations. Yet, I feel that Manzini’s focus on design choices is not at all incompatible with my unease for a closed taxonomy, as he was merely advocating a heuristic use of previous experiences (i.e. to direct ongoing inquiry and responsive engagement with context, as opposed to feed a classification system), within the overarching task of engaging with fluid form and, therefore, of seeking to facilitate beneficial conditions in the light of unique and changing circumstances.